School finance likely to dominate legislative session

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AUSTIN—When lawmakers convene in Austin Jan. 8 for the 86th Texas Legislature, they will elect a new Speaker of the House and face major challenges regarding public school financing.

Legislative priorities for Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission not only include supporting efforts to ensure adequate and equitable funding of public education, but also supporting increased state funding for high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten and early education options for all Texas children—particularly children from at-risk, low-income families.

During the course of their 140-day session, legislators also may tackle issues ranging from expansion of gambling to criminal justice reform—matters the CLC will monitor closely.

Change in leadership

One of the first items of business for the Texas House of Representatives will be to elect a successor to Speaker Joe Strauss, R-San Antonio. Strauss served five terms in that leadership role but did not seek re-election to the House in November.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, announced at a mid-November news conference he had secured pledges of support from enough members of the House to secure the Speaker’s post. At that same news conference, Bonnen announced school finance will be the top priority for the House in the upcoming session.

“It is time Texas took on the challenge of fixing our broken school finance system, and the Texas House will be leading—with all of us—to get that done,” Bonnen said.

Gov. Greg Abbott has emphasized the importance of both school finance reform and property tax reform.

“The future of our Texas is in our classrooms today,” Abbott wrote in an Aug. 29 guest commentary for the Dallas Morning News. “That future depends on paying our best teachers more, rewarding districts for student achievement and growth, prioritizing spending in the classroom and reducing the burden of ever-increasing property taxes.”

To achieve property tax relief, “the state must increase its responsibility for education funding,” Abbott noted.

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Funding public education

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Kathryn Freeman

The state share of public education spending accounts for about 35 percent of the total, compared to 55.5 percent from local property taxes and 9.5 percent from the federal government, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of information from the Texas Legislative Budget Board.

However, lawmakers face a challenge if they are going to provide enough funds for public schools while also honoring pledges not to increase taxes, said Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the CLC.

“This is the dilemma facing the state for many sessions,” Freeman said. “When you promise no new taxes and property tax relief, and refuse to use the rainy day fund beyond one-time expenditures, then all you can really do is shift money around.”

Texas legislators need additional revenue to meet their constitutional obligation to provide adequately for public schools, said Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children.

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Charles Foster Johnson

“We need $6 billion more dollars to make suitable provision for public education,” Johnson said.

One place to begin would be raising taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and gasoline, which haven’t been increased in nearly three decades, he noted. A more general sales tax increase or franchise tax are other options, although they are less likely, he added.

“We hate the regressive nature of sales and service taxes, but we hate the starvation of our schools more,” Johnson said.

Vouchers unlikely

Both Freeman and Johnson predicted the House would defeat any voucher programs that would redirect funds to private schools at the expense of public schools.

In the last legislative session, the Texas Senate approved a bill to create education savings accounts and a tax credit scholarship program to fund private school tuition.

However, the House overwhelmingly approved a budget amendment that explicitly said taxpayer funds “may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for nonpublic education.”

With respect to higher education and issues surrounding immigration, the CLC will oppose efforts to repeal laws that allow in-state tuition for individuals who are long-term residents of Texas but not U.S. citizens, Freeman noted.

Gambling expansion

While efforts to legalize new forms of gambling, such as casinos, are unlikely to gain any traction, “our biggest threat this session will come from initiatives that claim to be a simple extension of currently legal forms of gambling or other pastime activities,” said Rob Kohler, CLC legislative consultant on gambling issues.

In the past, proponents of these measures have claimed such initiatives do not require a constitutional amendment and could be passed by a simple majority in both the Texas House and Senate, he noted.

“I expect there will be a strong effort to legalize some aspect of sports betting and to legitimize the various forms of illegal poker that we have seen pop up in different parts of the state over the past year,” Kohler said.

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Rodger Weems

Rodger Weems, chair of Texans Against Gambling, likewise predicted battles over commercial poker houses and daily fantasy sports betting, as well as possible online gambling expansion.

“We expect the typical bills to be filed promoting gambling expansion. These will likely go nowhere, as the legislature has no appetite for expanding gambling,” Weems said.

That lack of appetite begins at the top in Austin, Kohler noted.

“Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick have been strong opponents of expanding gambling in the state of Texas, and I look forward to their continued leadership on this issue during the upcoming legislative session,” Kohler said.

Freeman anticipates lawmakers will consider positive criminal justice reform initiatives, such as removing barriers to occupational licenses for formerly incarcerated individuals and supporting programs to aid ex-offenders’ re-entry into society.

The CLC will continue to support legislation to protect the right of local municipalities to pass ordinances to limit predatory lending, particularly when those local laws are more stringent than state consumer protections.

“One of the big issues we will be watching again is pre-emption,” Freeman explained. “State lawmakers do not like the city of Austin’s paid family leave ordinance. So, they are considering legislation that would limit cities’ ability to legislate beyond state law. Obviously, that would be devastating to our momentum on the local level.”

Strengthen programs to fight hunger

The CLC also will support efforts to strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to prevent hunger among high-need populations, including senior adults, children, the homeless and people in underserved rural areas.

The North Texas Food Bank reported only 36 percent of eligible senior adults in Texas participate in SNAP, compared to 83 percent of other qualified demographic groups, due in part to a complicated application process and frequent benefit renewal requirements.

Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows states to adopt a simplified application for senior adults and permits benefit renewal every 36 months without a renewal interview, the food bank will urge Texas lawmakers to adopt the Elderly Simplified Application Program.

As part of its public policy agenda for the legislative session, the CLC will support:

  • Funding for the Department of Child and Family Protective Services to help retain and attract caseworkers and for evidence-based prevention and intervention services.
  • Efforts to ensure prosecution and penalties for human traffickers and sex buyers.
  • Legislation to abolish the Texas Lottery Commission.
  • Efforts to ensure faith-based groups and other nonprofit organizations can continue to minister and provide services to refugees placed in Texas.
  • Initiatives to protect the rights of churches and faith-based nonprofit organizations to make employment decisions, facility-use determinations and statements consistent with their religious convictions and beliefs.
  • Elimination of government funding for abortion providers and increased funding for abortion alternatives.
  • Expanding low-income mothers’ access to prenatal care and health care services up to one year after a child’s birth.

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